Why not let honest science take its course?

cartoonAnthropogenic (human-caused) global warming enthusiast David Barnhill spills a lot of ink in a recent letter (Feb. 13) trying mightily to explain away the inconvenient truth that average global temperatures have not risen over the last 18 years — a result wholly unpredicted by the prevailing AGW computer models. He does this mostly by referring vaguely to what “science has revealed” (after the fact) about the hiatus, then dismissing those who point out this elephant in the room as … part of a Koch brothers-funded “denial campaign.”

No surprise: When your evidence and your arguments get a little shaky, haul out the Koch brothers and holler “Denier!”

But Mr. Barnhill’s struggle to account for the unexpected hiatus was a sideshow. His main “argument” against tolerating dissent is the tired myth of “97 percent scientific consensus.” This magic number is expected by Mr. Barnhill and his fellow believers to shut down debate — as if consensus and group-think are authorities unto themselves. (Recall the former 99 percent Earth-as-the-center-of-the-universe consensus.) So what compelling authority gave us the unassailable 97 percent AGW consensus? Harvard/MIT? Gallup? Mt. Sinai? Any of these would be more convincing than the actual source.

The oft-cited 97 percent originates primarily from Australian global warming activist John Cook’s 2013 article, “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature,” published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, and trumpeted far and wide ever since. Far from being authoritative, however, Cook’s “research” has drawn a litany of well-deserved criticism, even from many AGW adherents. 

It turns out the project was less a scientific investigation to determine consensus than a public relations exercise to establish a pre-ordained result, discourage dissent, and pump up the faithful — a pretty successful enterprise if the influence on Mr. Barnhill, President Obama (who likes to cite the number), and the media is any indication.

The goal of the original project was clear from the start — as revealed accidently by leaked communication among participants, including Cook himself: “[Several colleagues] and I have been working on something over the last few months that we hope will have a game-changing impact on the public perception of consensus. Basically, we hope to establish that not only is there a consensus, there is a strengthening consensus.”

If that sounds a little contrived, even a fellow researcher wondered (in a leaked internal communication) why a major PR campaign for the not-yet-written paper was being planned before the research: “… I find this planning of huge marketing strategies somewhat strange when we don’t even have our results in…”

Putting aside the shoot-first-aim-later marketing campaign, what of the methodology itself? The project purported to establish — by looking at the abstracts of several thousand papers of widely-varying levels of presumed reliability — the extent of a “consensus” on two statements: (1) that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (which hardly anybody denies), and (2) that human activities have affected global temperatures to some unspecified extent. No quantification required.

Never mind whether such perceived effects are measurable, material, or harmful, much less whether the draconian regulatory remedies prescribed by the AGW crowd might have any chance of mitigating the anticipated adverse effects with or without crippling the global economy and sending us back to the Dark Ages. And never mind that at least one of Cook’s researchers supposedly reviewed 765 papers in three days. Those questions were ignored — all Cook’s team was looking for, essentially, was some minimal agreement that human action may have had some effect on changing planet temperatures — any effect whatsoever, no matter how conclusive or trivial. 

Predictably, Cook and his team quickly claimed to have found what they were looking for and then immediately put the PR plan into highly successful effect — which is why most of us have heard the 97 percent figure ad nauseum. Not everyone, however, was as impressed with Cook’s work as the president, the media, or Mr. Barnhill. 

Consider these observations by just a few of Cook’s academically accomplished critics:

‚Ä¢ ‚ÄàRichard S.J. Tol, professor of the economics of climate change at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, found Cook’s reported results to be “… inconsistent and biased … not representative and contain[ing] many irrelevant papers. Overall, data quality is low … Data disclosure is incomplete so that key results cannot be reproduced or tested” (Energy Policy, 2014).

‚Ä¢ ‚ÄàProfessor David Legates, former Director of the Center for Climatic Research at Delaware University, published a paper showing that Cook’s study depended on mixing up several different and mutually exclusive definitions of the consensus, and his examination of Cook’s data (which Cook has only reluctantly — and sometimes accidentally — revealed) suggests that only 41 of 11,944 abstracts reviewed support the thesis that human activity is “very likely” causing most of the current warming (Science and Education, 2013).

‚Ä¢ ‚ÄàProfessor Jose Duarte, social scientist at Arizona State and self-described supporter of the AGW consensus, writes that the research by AGW activists was: “… completely invalid and untrustworthy (and by customary scientific standards, completely unpublishable.) … garbage…” with “… unbelievable bias and transparent motives of the raters” who “apparently collaborated with each other in their ratings” and exhibited “evidence of fraud.” Duarte concluded that the hostility of Cook’s Skeptical Science team to AGW skeptics should invalidate the entire study:

“…[T]hey really hate the dissenters … Their world view is extremely binary and hostile — most environmentalists are quite a bit more moderate and less hateful than they are … [T]he ‘study’ was a political operation from start to finish … We have explicit evidence that the raters cheated … and that some raters were pretty much willing to code anything as an endorsement [of the preferred AGW consensus.]

‚Ä¢ ‚ÄàLikewise, Professor Mike Hulme, founder of Tyndall Centre — the UK’s national climate research institute — found Cook’s research to be: “… poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and … offers a depiction of the world into categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ … dividing climate scientists into ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ … [T]hese people are still living … in the pre-2009 world of climate change discourse. Haven’t they noticed that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on?”

David Barnhill should consider moving on as well — to an understanding that the believers’ 97 percent consensus article of faith is inaccurate, likely fraudulent, and basically meaningless. The flimsy research behind that number tells us nothing useful about the current state of scientific opinion beyond the trivial observations that most scientists believe C02 to be a greenhouse gas and many of them believe human activities have had some undefined and unmeasured effect on warming the planet — though none in the last 18 years and quite possibly no more than could also be accounted for by natural climate variation.

What happens if we let the much-feared scientific debate continue without trying to shut down the other side with ridicule and name-calling? At a minimum, we might benefit from taking a closer look at some of these key findings of International Panel on Climate Change 2013 Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC AR5), as they weaken the case for attributing global warming to human influences:

• Discrepancies with climate model projections, not least the unpredicted and ongoing (now 18-year) warming hiatus;

• Decreased climate sensitivity to increases in CO2;

• Evidence that sea level rise in 1920-1950 is of the same magnitude as in 1993-2012;

• Increasing Antarctic sea ice extent; and

• Low confidence in attributing extreme weather events to anthropogenic global warming.

Space doesn’t allow to even begin to identify the many areas of climate change research still under debate among mainstream scientists. So why not let honest science take its course — which is to pursue knowledge with unbiased research, rather than clumsy and misleading PR campaigns to promote who or who may not agree with whom on unclear positions to start with? Given the worldwide policy impacts of the AGW debate, we owe ourselves and our progeny no less.